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01182014_MensBasketballvStJoe Credit: Yuzhong Qian , Yuzhong Qian

I f Saturday’s season opener against Delaware State was only 35 minutes long, the conversation about Penn basketball would probably be different.

The Quakers spent most of the game proving that this is a far different program than the one that disappointed throughout the entirety of last season.

Freshmen were stepping up.

Guards Darnell Foreman and Antonio Woods — Woods especially — showed that they have the handles and wherewithal to be solid offensive contributors at a Division I level. Forward Mike Auger showed that he can be a force on the offensive boards. And perhaps most surprisingly, Sam Jones showed that he is already a lethal shooter and floor-spacer.

The team’s leader emerged.

Star junior guard Tony Hicks was phenomenal for the vast majority of the game, ending with 31 points on a relatively efficient performance, making nine of his 20 attempts.

The squad showed a lot of heart. If a ball was loose, there was an excellent chance that the Red and Blue would be the first on the floor.

At one point, Hicks crashed into the stands after unsuccessfully diving to grab a loose ball, and the impact was vicious. An official asked him if he was OK , and Tony didn’t even respond. He was just upset that he couldn’t get to the ball.

Think he would have shown the same type of leadership last year?

And most of all, you could feel that the team was playing with a type of purpose and togetherness that was nowhere to be found last season.

As a result, the Quakers entered the game’s final stretch with a victory seemingly in hand.

“I don’t want to compare these guys to last year’s team, because it’s a different team,” coach Jerome Allen said. “I will say though I like coaching this group.

“We like one another.”

And then last year’s on-court tendencies started to reveal themselves once again.

There are a number of moments you could point to as times when the Quakers could have put their opponent away. Right off the bat, a missed free throw on a one-and-one from Hicks and a couple short misses inside from junior center Darien Nelson-Henry — who otherwise played a solid 28 minutes — come to mind.

It’s tempting to say that the Quakers choked the game away and to point to any of these moments as the reason for the loss, but ultimately, that’s a cop-out .

Despite the much improved atmosphere surrounding the program and some individual moments of brilliance, the Quakers’ actual play throughout the game was not exactly light years ahead of last year.

In fact, throughout the game, the Quakers’ defense struggled to stop dribble penetration, account for three point shooters and grab key defensive boards. Meanwhile, the Red and Blue offense looked out of sorts at times, often relying on Hicks to bail the squad out.

All of this is to be expected. With four freshmen getting significant minutes and only two players — Hicks and Nelson-Henry — returning with significant minutes under their belts, it’s only natural for the team to have some growing pains.

“I’m the type to look for moral victories,” Allen said. “With that being said, I’m not blinded to where we are in terms of our position on the timeline.”

So forget about the atrocious ending of the game. After all, even if Hicks’ last-second attempt had rolled in and the Quakers had won, it still would not change the fact that the team has a lot of improving to do.

What is important, though, is that with a new sense of purpose and a more positive atmosphere, the team seems to have the foundation laid to do just that.

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